Leading Article: Commons unites in hypocrisy

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS depressingly little sense of outrage yesterday during the sparsely attended emergency debate in the House of Commons. Yet anger was appropriate. The debate was sparked off by the allegation in the Sunday Times that two MPs, Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick, were said to have agreed to accept pounds 1,000 each from journalists posing as businessmen, in return for tabling commercially useful parliamentary questions.

Many of those MPs present seemed more interested in marginal questions of journalistic ethics - 'entrapment' and the public interest, and alleged bugging by reporters posing as businessmen - than they were in the ethics of their parliamentary colleagues.

This is a pity. Such cynical world-weariness plays into the hands of the most calculating critics of parliamentary procedure. Joe Ashton, the long-serving Labour MP for Bassetlaw, was probably right to suggest during the debate that even the Commons Committee on Privileges is now regarded by much of the public as a committee 'to protect the House and not the public'. If so, it is the fault of the House and not of the public or the press.

Those whose profession it is to observe the workings of Westminster report - off the record, of course - that many distinguished MPs heaved a sigh of relief and muttered 'There but for the grace of God . . .' when confronted with accounts of the bugged conversations of the two Tory MPs who apparently fell prey to the blandishments of the Sunday Times.

There is then little instinctive feeling that placing parliamentary questions in return for large cheques sent to one's home address is wrong in principle, whether or not it breaches the arcane letter of the laws of parliamentary procedure. In that sense Messrs Riddick and Tredinnick who dickered and dithered - rather than telling those who phoned them offering money for favours to drop dead - were, alas, all too typical of today's Commons.

The Register of Members' Interests, set up two decades ago amid much wailing and gnashing of parliamentary teeth, has turned out to be an uninformative and essentially voluntary body, because the Commons lacks the determination to deal firmly with those MPs who treat it lightly. In any case the information sought by the registrar is sketchy and incomplete.

The privileges committee should already have tightened up on the whole question of members' earnings, consultancy fees, shareholdings, and the like. This latest brouhaha underlines the need for action.